THE Church of England’s Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, has welcomed a United Nations committee’s recommendations on ensuring freedom of religious expression in schools, but has defended church schools against criticism.
Last Friday, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published an advance version of its “concluding observations” on the state of children’s rights in the UK. It criticised some of the ways in which faith schools operate, including “the use of religion as a selection criterion for school admissions in England”.
In response, a Department for Education spokesperson told The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday that “faith schools must admit all children who apply, without reference to faith, where there are places available,” and that they could give priority based on religious belief only if a school was oversubscribed.
The report also recommends “repealing legal provisions for compulsory attendance in collective worship”. A Church House source suggested that this stipulation was perplexing, because, since 1944, the law has allowed parents to withdraw their children from collective worship.
The UN report calls for “statutory guidance to ensure the right of all children, including children under 16 years of age, to withdraw from religious classes without parental consent”.
Responding to the report, Mr Genders, said: “We welcome the recommendations urging freedom of religious expression for all children. All Church of England schools are there to serve the whole community — including families of all faiths and none. They are, nevertheless, distinctively Christian, and we know that children and parents of all backgrounds and beliefs seem to value what they offer.
“The majority of Church of England schools have no faith selection criteria whatsoever. Of course, some, when oversubscribed, provide some places to those who attend worship on a regular basis, and there is an argument that this can offer an alternative to a simple postcode lottery.”
The head of campaigns at the National Secular Society, Megan Manson, urged the Government to act on the report, and told The Daily Telegraph that religious discrimination in schools was “disgraceful”.
The Conservative MP for Don Valley, Nick Fletcher, however, said that the report was an “attack on people and institutions of faith”.
Despite media coverage focusing on faith schools, most of the report’s recommendations on freedom of religion concern allegations that counter-terrorism measures discriminate against children of certain religions and ethnicities. It says that of referrals to Prevent, almost half are of “Muslim children and children of Asian descent”.
The report also expresses “deep concern” that the Nationality and Borders Act, passed last year, enables the Government to strip children of their British citizenship (News, 29 April 2022). It also suggests that freedom of assembly is impinged by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (News, 19 January 2022).